I don’t know about you, but mental therapy, wellbeing and relaxation for me is not about shopping or sitting in a crowded coffee shop, it’s about getting away from it all. When I feel my mind is too busy or I am feeling drained, the last thing I need are crowds, ambient noise and the frantic hustle of shoppers. For me the best place in the world to retreat into is Nature, somehow she knows how to recharge my heart, soul, eyes, ears and lungs. There is nothing quite like being totally embraced by mother natures calming environmental arms.
Fortunately, I live on the West Coast of Ireland; a stone’s throw from the Wild Atlantic Ocean and very near the historic Merlin Park Woods. The latter is a heavenly sanctuary to retreat to when city life becomes overwhelming, or if you just need to withdraw to a quiet space. With its welcoming sweet meadows and a beautiful mature forest, Merlin Woods visually draw you in and embraces you like an old friend. Her sweet soothing sounds of birdsong and rustling trees soon titillate your ears; your eyes drink in the shades and hues Mother Nature provides in an untouched and unspoilt landscape. Teeming with life everything here moves at a less frenetic speed, so relaxingly tranquil, I promise if you are like me you won’t ever want to leave.
Take a walk in the woods with me…
Merlin Woods is one of the largest mature woodland areas left in Galway City, a place to gather one's thoughts, recharge the mind, body and soul for a few hours and leave behind the fast paced demanding lifestyle we live in today.
The start of my walk takes me past the proud stone sentinel, towering over the North Wood on the South West Corner of the woods are the remains of Merlin Park Castle (formerly Doughiska Castle) it is a wonderful reminder of how ancient this area is. Merlin Castle was built around the 15th and 16th century, and is a fine example of a late medieval Tower House. Part of the Bawn Wall and ancillary buildings still survive today. On the South wall of the castle is a Sheela na Gig, sitting upside down on the left-hand side of a second-floor opening and if I am not mistaken is one of only two to be found in Galway. The Castle is an archaeological landmark and has been lived in and owned by some of Galway’s most prominent and powerful families.
I don’t follow any direct pathway when here, preferring to amble without purpose through the woods, discovering something different every time I visit. The place is a haven for wildlife and rare species of flora and fauna, and is of extremely high conservational importance. A group called Friends of Merlin Woods are instrumental in highlighting Merlin Woods utmost significance, organising signage, educational trips, clean ups and events here so that everyone and anyone can come enjoy the space. You will understand why as I tell you about this magical place.
Estimated at being approximately 200+ years old, Merlin Woods has a number of graveled pathways to explore and plenty of trails throughout the woods. You can immerse yourself in a variety of shrubs and tree species, everything from Hazels, Beech, Conifers, Oak, Ash and Larch just to name a few. One day I will take a stroll with someone who can identify all the trees and fauna that catches my eye so often, I do love nature, but am not confidently able to identify all our trees or plants, especially if they are naked like right now as we emerge from Winter!
Anyone who just needs a quiet place to reflect will be at home walking here. However, if you are like me and love nature you will be enthralled with the variety of trees, fungi, and wildflowers, not to mention the wildlife. Some of the flora found here can only typically only be found in the Burren in County Clare approximately 40 kms away. It is paradise for me as I go about photographing everything and doing small sketches, I pick nothing to take home, I prefer to let nature stay where it belongs and thrives.
'There he goes again, scrambling off through the treetops', I am referring to one of Ireland’s beloved native Red Squirrels (Sciurus vulgaris), a breed that has existed in Ireland since before the last ice age. From what I have been told there is a family of Red Squirrels living in Merlin woods, sadly they are not 100% safe here either as deaths occur when the young leave the safety of the trees and get killed by a cars or buses on the road that access the hospital within their habitat and the main road that passes close by.
Our Red Squirrels are totally dependent on woodland habitats and have suffered so much through deforestation it was almost completely extinct in the 17th century. The current populations are descendants of reintroductions of the Red Squirrels in the 19th century, but still they are sadly in decline. Along with loss of natural habitat our native Red Squirrel now has to compete for food with the imported American Grey Squirrel. Thankfully the invasion of Grey Squirrels to the West has been halted for now by the Shannon River. So there is still hope that our little Reds numbers will pick up if the habitat is preserved.
Leaving the Squirrel in peace, I weave my way from forest trails to the gravel paths, I cannot help but feel I have been transported back in time, surrounded by nature and alone, it becomes a surreal landscape of beauty and wonder, my mind, body and soul feel relaxed and euphoric. The fluttering of birds from tree to tree, the air carrying delightful songs, my nostrils filled with the earthy scent only a damp forest reveals, all my senses are on overdrive, it’s wonderful, tactile, peaceful and ethereal.
I stroll back through the woods, off the beaten pathways stopping to admire goliath sized trees, old grandfathers of the forest dotted here and there, if only they could speak, what stories would they tell me? My mind tends to run away with me at times and I get immersed in the moment, it is so much fun, especially in places like this!
Stopping by what remains of the old stream that once flowed through the woods I catch sight of our Nation’s smallest bird, a beautiful wren hopping from stone to stone, he wasn’t in the least disturbed by my presence. I wait until he disappears and then turn to head up the hill into the forest. Along the way I pass a series of enormous and small moss covered stonewalls, I am sure they are tell-tale signs of pathways and garden areas now being swallowed by the woodlands. Some walls have fallen or been knocked down and are covered in lush blanket of moss, I cannot help myself, I remove my gloves to feel its luxuriousness, damp and soft under the weight of my hand, snap a few photos and move on.
I meander a lot and crisscross the path and forest trails, heading past an old cottage ruins and wonder what they were like in their hay-day, who lived there and what did they do? All that remain are the walls and openings of fireplaces, a few stone steps, trees and shrubs now inhabiting the spaces once occupied by people, reminders of a bygone era.
After a while, I connect with the gravel path again, I stop by the map and signage that display the flora and fauna you can see in the area and your location (should you be new to the area or lost) along with landmarks of interest, the place is teaming with birds as the feeders are still up due to the bad weather. I knew the feeders were there, so I came to visit and see what birds were around.
Heading back into the forest I keep walking until I come to the hospital’s tarmac pathway, I cross the main road and head over to the South Meadows. What a stunning place it is when in full bloom, I have seen several foxes here on my walks and when driving past on the main road to town, the meadow is normally full of rabbits, but not today, it is quiet and I am alone and loving the solitude. I’ve seen most of the wildlife here, not on my walk today, but on various other walks and to be honest I spend more time looking up and around I don’t notice the time or where I end up in the woods. It’s not hard to find your way out if you do get a little lost and that is all part of the adventure.
The woods and meadows are home to rabbits, foxes, bats, badgers, lizards, sparrowhawks, kestrels, buzzards and possibly a few Pine Marten (sighting have yet to be acknowledged). Always something to see when walking here, but today it was too cold and damp, so not many sightings of animals on the trail, but I thoroughly enjoyed the peacefulness the place offered.
In the Spring and Summer months the South Meadow is one of Ireland’s top sites for butterfly species and numbers, that is most likely a direct result of the area not being sprayed with harmful weed-killers, it is totally wild and natural, infact seed collectors come to harvest seeds here to spread and reintroduce wildflowers and plants to other areas of Galway City and it’s manmade parklands. It is also home to numerous insects and bees that zig-zag happily from plant to plant. The meadows are an orchid and wild plant lovers dream, in Spring and Summer some very rare species pop up here and in when if full bloom it is a pallet of colours that would delight many a painter.
I finish my walk, refreshed, full of new ideas and ready for the day. I reflect on how lucky I am to live so close to such a special place and I am reminded of the amazing lady who I was introduced to three years ago, Caroline Stanley. Caroline organises everything from photography, educational and nature groups and takes them on informative walks into the woods. She also organises community events and major clean ups as part of The Friends of Merlin Woods, they are the driving force behind the preservation of the woods and its ancient Meadows for all to enjoy. The group are constantly raising awareness and educating people of the rare and valuable amenity we have on our doorstep.
Caroline Stanley of Friends of Merlin Woods shares a little bit of the history of the Woods,
“Merlin Park Hospital and Merlin Woods occupy the former site of the Waithman estate. Merlin Park House was built by Charles Blake in the first decade of the 19th century and was bought by the Waithman family in 1876. Thereafter it was compulsorily acquired for the building of a TB sanitorium in 1945. The house no longer exists and Merlin Park Hospital now occupies the site. The Waithmans planted many trees during the period when they owned the 340 acre estate. The woods appear on the Ordnance Survey maps from the 1830s and you can see that some of the trees are well over 200 years old. You can tell it is old by woodland flowers like wood anemone, and bluebells, which show old woodland. We’re learning about it ourselves as we go along, about the different insects and species of wildlife”.
I love Merlin Woods, it is such a valuable amenity to have on the doorstep, spending time in here for me is like stepping into Narnia, it is a treasured heritage to be looked after and passed on for generations to come. And I will leave you with one last thought to reflect upon, thank you for taking the journey with me.
'You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, they must protect them' - Wangari Maathai